Monday, September 25, 2006

Of Mother and Daughter

by Noby

Tina pedaled home excitedly. In her schoolbag was the letter from the State Sports Council explaining that she had been selected to represent her state in the coming Malaysian Schools Sports Meet (MSSM) in Kuala Lumpur. Held each year, the MSSM was the culmination of all sporting meets throughout the year starting from schools, districts and states level. At the MSSM, participants were selected school children from all the 14 states of Malaysia representing the states where their schools were. And Tina had been selected to represent her state, Terengganu, in athletics, running her pet events, 400meters, 800meters and the 4x400meters relay. Her selection was announced proudly by the school headmaster during the school assembly that morning. Only two students were selected from her school. Tina for the under 16 category and a boy for the under 18. Tina re-savoured the feeling when her name was announced. She felt as though she was on cloud nine. The announcement was totally unexpected. Tina recalled heads turning in her directions. Eyes looking at her with admirations, perhaps with envy too. But Tina did not notice the latter. She only noticed the admirations. She floated around with pride the entire school hours. Friends and teachers kept congratulating and encouraging her. Teachers were especially proud of her for she also excelled in studies, being consistently among the top three best students of her forms. She could not wait to go home to tell her parents. To get her father to sign the letter of consent. Without that she would not be able to go to Kuala Lumpur even though selected.

Half her mind kept dreaming of the excitement of running in MSSM, of going to Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian Capital City. The other half kept reminding her to pay attention to the road. ‘You don’t want anything untoward to happen now, do you?’ She chided herself. Her skinny suntanned legs pedaled the bicycle furiously. She did not feel the burn of the sun nor the distance. It was 14 km to and from her house to the school. Perhaps pedaling the distance everyday, rain or shine, developed her aptitude and stamina for long distance running. It certainly did not occur to Tina that it was far. It was just something she had to do. And she enjoyed doing it. There was no school bus or public bus plying the road from her village to the school anyway. Her village was that remote. The only alternative was to take the boat downriver to town, walk to the bus station, and then the bus to school. She did this before, and ended up arriving home almost 4 pm everyday when the school dismissed at 1 o’clock. And when she had her sports practices, she sometimes missed the last boat home. On those occasions, she had to cry her heart out before some kindly boatmen took pity on her and sent her back. And to a very unpleasant reception from her mother.

Through her excitement, Tina felt a twinge of worry. Her mother. What would be her reaction? Her mother had always opposed to her sporting activities. Any activity, for that matter, other than staying at home. Her mother belonged to the old school which believed a girl should be at home doing all the girlish things, what ever they were, grimaced Tina. She particularly objected to Tina’s wearing those very short shorts when running. She even objected to girls wearing pants. Tina remembered one occasion when her elder sister came home from her boarding school in Seremban. She brought home a couple of friends. One day they decided to go to a picnic at one of the beautiful white sandy beaches in Terengganu. Her sister’s friends were from Kuala Lumpur. They dressed themselves in t-shirts and jeans appropriate for a day at the beach. Tina’s sister did likewise but in a more loose and baggy pants. Suddenly, her sister burst into the room she shared with Tina, crying.

“Mother wouldn’t let me wear the pants, she insists I wear a sarong!” she wailed, worried that she would appear like a real gawky, dummy kampong girl besides her sophisticated city friends.

Tina looked at her with exasperation. “Just go ahead and wear the pants, don’t bother with mother,” she said. “She will never let you do anything, so you just take the matter into your own hands.” Tina’s principle of doing things her mother didn’t like frequently resulted her receiving the wrong end of the stick.

In fact her mother did not even approve of the picnic but acquiesced only because of her sister’s Kuala Lumpur friends. Her more ‘yes-mother’ sister decided to adopt Tina’s principle on that particular occasion, and went off stubbornly with her friends in her baggy pants much to mother’s ire.

During that time, her mother was giving Tina a complete cold shoulder. Tina had kept her silence and distance as usual. She was used to her mother’s cold treatment. It always happened during the second term of school when the sports season started. Tina would be late home almost every day and sometimes even during the weekends taking parts in various sports activities and this upset her mother to no end. And as usual Tina never paid any attention to her mother’s objections. She never could understand nor accept her mother’s opposition to her involvement in sports. However, that time it was more serious. Mother had not talked to Tina for almost two months other than the occasional grumpy ‘ump’ or ‘hah’ to Tina’s efforts at reconciliation.

It had started with the spike shoes incident two months earlier. Tina had just come back from school in the afternoon and so had her father. They were having lunch together, seated on the floor, around a large tray containing an assortment of dishes prepared by her mother. Her mother was hovering around ensuring her father had everything to his liking.

Suddenly Tina asked her father,’ Father, can you buy me a pair of spike shoes?’

Tina had always dreamed of owning a pair of spike shoes for running because she had been running bare foot, even when representing her school or district.. Tina visualized herself in her Adidas running attire complete with golden Adidas spikes shoes, looking like her idols, Marina Chin and Junaidah Aman, the two famous Malaysian national runners at that time. The walls of her room were fully covered with pasted newspaper cuttings of these two ladies in various sporting poses before her mother tore them down. The sight of those girls dressed in skimpy running entire was too much for her. She was convinced that they were evil influence on her stubborn daughter. That incidence triggered another cold war between Tina and her mother, as Tina, sulked and sobbed over the torn pictures of her idols.

Her school had a few pairs of spikes but for some reason the sports teacher never lend them to Tina. But Tina’s close friend enjoyed the benefit and Tina secretly felt that favouritism was in play. Tina’s friend was the daughter of a well respected lawyer and in those days in small town like Tina’s, lawyers were like the local dignitaries. She came to school chauffeur driven in a Mercedes car and alighted right at the school corridor instead of the school gate like every one else. On top of that Tina’s friend was very pretty and always had an air of a lady about her. Probably because of her upbringing. She was very smart too and very friendly. So everybody including the teachers liked and in awe of her. Compared to her, Tina felt like a rough, gawky kampong girl.

‘How much do they cost?” Tina’s father asked.

Tina did not get to answer and her father was stunned into silence. Because as soon as her father asked the question, her mother ran out screaming like crazy and slammed the kitchen door with such force that the wooden house trembled. The outburst shocked both Tina and her father. Both made a pretense of continuing their lunch in silence and that was the end of the spike shoes and the beginning of her mother’s boycott of Tina. Tina retired to her room to hide her hurt. She was bewildered over her mother’s reaction.

Father didn’t say he was going to buy me the shoes, right? He was just asking the price. That doesn’t mean he was going to buy them for me. Tina went over and over in her mind. She could not understand what was so wrong about her interest in sports.

The teachers encouraged students to be active, right?, so long as you don’t neglect your studies. It certainly did not interfere with my studies. Tina thought petulantly.

Tina recalled during the recent school sports day when she emerged as the best Sports Girl for under 16 category. She stopped at a friend’s house before going home. A cousin of her friend had won something during the sports day and Tina saw how the family rejoiced and was very proud of him. They made so much noise and such a do about his winning. At that moment Tina wallowed in self-pity because nobody in her family ever showed such pride over her achievements, especially in sports. She did not even dare show any of the medals and trophies that she won for fear of adding more fuel to fire with her mother. When everyone was asleep at night, She would quietly slip her medals and trophies alongside her brother’s in the display cabinet in the middle of the house.

‘Oo-oo-mph!’ the sound of a lorry horn jolted Tina out of her miserable recollections. She was on a bridge and had strayed to the middle. She quickly swerved back to the side sticking her tongue out to the lorry driver for giving her a rude gesture. The lorry passed her with a roar. She started paying more attention to the road. She was nearing home now anyway. After the bridge, she turned right, off the busy main road onto the red gravel road of her village. Her house was just about two kilometers from the junction. On the quiet village road, her mind inadvertantly revert back to her problem. She tried to keep up her confidence. Surely father would sign the consent letter. He was a teacher himself, was he not? And teachers always encouraged sports right so long as you don’t neglect your studies. No one could ever accuse me of that! Tina tried to comfort herself. Her father was a religious teacher but he was teaching in a regular school not a religious one. Surely he would understand. Surely he would be proud of my achievement, Tina assured herself albeit worriedly.

She turned onto the padi field bund that served as the road to her house, bumping and wobbling over the uneven surface of the bund all the way home.

Her father’s Honda was parked under the house. So her father was already home. Her heart thudding and hands clammy with cold despite the afternoon heat, Tina went up the stairs and saw her father having lunch with her mother fussing over him as usual. Tina dropped her bag in her room and went to join her father for lunch. No one invited her but she helped herself to a plate and sat herself on the floor in front of the tray. Her mother pointedly ignored her and her father being a man of few words never did say anything. The obstinate side of Tina wished she could just leave without having lunch, but she was hungry and thirsty after all the pedaling in the hot sun. So feeling very small and insecure she swallowed her pride and helped herself to the food. Throughout lunch, her mind was a busy bee, trying to find an opening to tell her father of her happy news. But her mother was always there and she did not have the gut to face a repeat of the dramatic ‘Spike Shoes Scene’, as she secretly labeled the incident.

Her father retired to his room after lunch. Tina was left mooning about with her problem. How ironic she thought. What would be a very happy news to other people, was such a big problem for her. She curled herself up at her favourite mooning place, at the base of the big jambu arang tree, on the fringe of the ripening padi fields at the bottom of her house compound. The soft cool afternoon breeze lulled her to sleep temporarily giving her mind a respite from her problem. She was awakened by the sound of her father’s motorbike starting.

She jumped up dismayed. ‘Oh no, he’s going off, and I have not told him.’

She rushed to the house and was relieved to see her father was only doing the routine check on his motorcycle. Her mother was not in sight. Tina saw her opportunity and, with her heart beat wildly, she approached her father under the house. She squatted beside him.

“Father, I…I…have been chosen to represent Terengganu in M..M..MSS.ssM,” Tina stammered. “C…can I go father?’ She asked in a small voice. “Teacher said you have to sign a letter if allow go.”

Her father turned to look at her. For one brief moment, Tina thought she caught a glimpse of pride in her father’s eyes. Then he turned away to continue to tend to his bike without saying a word. Tina was almost in tears.

“You have to ask your mother’s permission,” she heard her father said softly without looking at her.

Tina’s heart almost stopped with disappointment.

How could he ask me to do that when he knows for sure what the answer will be? her painful heart ranted. Tina did not say a word but looked at her father pleadingly for understanding. But he steadfastly looked at his motorcycle.

Tina got up and turned to go up the stairs slowly, shoulders drooping. In the house, she saw her mother sitting on her praying mat. Not one to give up easily, She sat herself on the floor behind her mother waiting for her to finish her prayer and prepared herself for her mother’s reaction when she asked her permission. She could not for the life of her think of the possibility of her mother saying yes, but she had to try for she wanted to go to MSSM more than anything else. Oh, maybe as much as she wanted the spike shoes. Her mother finished her prayer and Tina crept nearer. She popped the question timidly then braced herself. Minutes passed nothing happened. It was as though Tina had not spoken. Her mother completely ignored her. Not giving up, Tina waited then asked again. Still her mother did not respond but calmly removed her praying robe and walked away from her. Her mother’s snub cut Tina to the quick. She sat there staring at her mother’s back forlornly tears rolling down her cheeks.

Tina hid herself in her room sobbing recalling the proud moment in the morning in school, the pride she felt and the admiration she received. Well none of that on the home front, she thought bitterly. She felt bitter about her father too. ‘He should make the decision, he is the head of the family, isn’t he? Why does he always give in to mother,?’ Her vicious thoughts went on and on until finally exhausted she fell asleep forgoing her dinner.

Two days passed. Tina was still no nearer her wish. The next day was the last day for her to submit the consent letter. She grew desperate. She had been going about the house for the past two days with her face hanging down to her knees, skipping most of her meals for she completely lost her appetite. Just as well it was over the weekend so she did not have to attend school. She was not confident of putting up a brave and cheerful front as though everything was alright. But tomorrow, school started again and she had to submit the letter otherwise she would be dropped from the state team. Tears welled up in her eyes again. It was already night and she was seated away from her other siblings who were engrossed in play. She had been doing that ever since the day she asked for the permission. Day time she would hide herself at the base of the jambu arang tree and at night she just sat in a corner by herself nursing her disappointment and desperation.

She thought she would give her father another try when suddenly he called to her, “Where’s the letter that I have to sign?” Tina’s heart jumped with joy. The swift shining change to her face brought tears to her father’s eyes and he turned away to hide them but Tina never noticed them. Being a child she did not understand her father’s dilemma of pleasing his extremely conservative wife and his extremely adventurous, athletic daughter. But Tina was right, being a schoolteacher, he understood. Oblivious to all these, Tina jumped to her feet with such alacrity that she almost stepped over her little sister crawling on the floor nearby. She rushed to her room for the letter and brought it to her father, her hand shaking in her eagerness. As her father signed the letter consenting her to participate, she glanced at her mother sitting away in stony silence. She felt guilty but was too selfish in her joy to let it affect her.

Oh she will come around eventually. Doesn’t she always? Tina consoled herself.